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America's Cup Rialto: January 17 - All teams work together to save Patriot

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World NZ 20 Jan 15:00 NZDT 20 January 2021
American Magic - Patriot - Hauraki Gulf - January 17, 2021 - Prada Cup - 36th America's Cup © Richard Gladwell /

No two days are ever the same in the America's Cup. The final race of Round Robin 2 was no exception. Here's a perspective from on the water, in words and images of a day that brought out the best in the America's Cup teams

The final day of the first bracket of Round Robins in the Challenger Selection Series, competing for the Prada Cup began with a usually small media briefing by Regatta Director Iain Murray.

He's a former America's Cup skipper - helming the Kookaburra II, the defender in the 1987 America's Cup in Fremantle, a well as being a top 18ft skiff skipper in the late '70's and 80's, an Olympic representative, noted designer, offshore racer and much more. This is the third America's Cup in which he has been Regatta Director. He had a baptism of fire at his first in 2013 with the death of Andrew "Bart" Simpson in the break-up of Artemis Racing's AC72 during a practice session before the Cup. Murray had to take control of a difficult aftermath bringing in a string of safety changes, that weren't too popular in some quarters.

His briefings are always excellent sessions. He starts with the weather, then covers the racing schedule, makes a note of any special points to look out for during the day, and then the session usually devolves into an "ask me anything" which given his depth and diverse experience is always informative.

Today's revelation concerned the weather and that a change was expected mid-afternoon, with rain and maybe squalls. The course area was unusual running parallel to the Auckland's North Shore, and able to be rotated if the wind did change as expected between the first and second races of the day from a northerly direction to the west. Murray was expecting rain around 6.00pm based on the forecasts and weather feeds he receives. The direction range he mentioned is not a good one. It's an unusual direction - and frequently there is an unexpected bad weather event.

When we arrived on the race area it was further out than expected, almost in the old America's Cup course area from the 2000 and 2003 Cups. At Rangitoto Light there was quite a sea running kicked up by the tide, however that eased back in the race area itself.

Over on the North Shore the rain clouds started to build - indicating a period of rain rather than a violent change pending.

The first of these rain squalls hit during the first race of the day - between INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. Initially the squall cracked in, in typical fashion, but wasn't too bad. Then it dropped with the AC75's coming off their foils before swinging, turning the course into a soldier's course, and Murray decided to abandon the race after Leg 4 and restart.

The AC75's stayed attached to their tenders, mainsails up. Soon afterwards the wind briefly peaked at 30-35kts before dropping away suddenly.

After the rain moved through, the blue sky began to emerge, around 4.00pm and the racing area took on a new hue - and it seemed for a time that the promised weather bomb had come and gone. The breeze continued to go up and down in strength, which is a little unusual.

The restarted race was spectacular racing - the first time we'd really seen the foiling monohulls racing in truly open water. An amazing, spectacular and awesome sight. It finished around 5.00pm, with the final race of Round Robin 2 due to start at 5.30pm.

Over on the North Shore the grey rainclouds began to build again - nothing threatening. The sky hadn't turned black. It just looked like another of several showers that had been passing to the south of us for the last hour. It just looked like the rain that Murray had noted would come through around 6.00pm.

The race between Luna Rossa and American Magic got under way at 5.30pm on a course axis of 314degrees - near enough to NW. Surprisingly the upper wind limit of 21kts (+/- tide adjustment) wasn't triggered on any start during the day.

In a photoboat, we'd followed the two boats up Leg 5, hoping to be able to shoot as they rounded the windward mark for the final time.

With arrival of a rain squall, just before 6.00pm as forecast by Predictwind, American Magic, approached the final windward mark. There seemed to be little point in trying to shoot in the murk and we made the decision to head back downwind and catch the finish, and what looked to be American Magic's first win of the two Round Robins. We could see the rain squall hitting our photoboat, much as described by Terry Hutchinson later at the media briefing the following day.

The squalls had followed a similar pattern with a lull, an increase in wind and then a rapid increase to about 25kts, based on the visual signs.

A few seconds after we had turned one of the photographers called the capsize incident.

Behind us we could see the amazing sight of an AC75 fully airborne, and flying sideways, before it crashed on its side and came to rest with its mast flat on the water, and pointing into the wind.

Patriot stayed on its side for several minutes, before being righted. The time taken seemed to be very long, given that Emirates Team New Zealand's Te Rehutai had been righted in a couple of minutes less than two weeks previously.

Her crew could be seen either in the standing in the water or huddled in the cockpit trenches. It was floating high on its topside, with the hole underwater and not visible.

When the AC75 was righted it was apparent that something was seriously wrong.

Instead of floating high and almost dinghy-like Patriot had maybe only half a metre of her topside showing, and slowly almost imperceptibly was going under.

There was the obvious comparison with the sinking of One Australia in the Semi-Finals of the same challenger selection series in 1995, off San Diego. No-one will forget the rapidity with which the 80ft IACC keelboat sank straight down into the Pacific Ocean.

From later examination of photos, the AC75's two chase boats had basic rescue gear including hull flotation gear and a powered pump, both of which were put on board and started.

As the foredeck disappeared from view, it was obvious that was being done was not sufficient, and the AC75 would surely sink.

The water level crept slowly up the jib luff, where the rate of sink could be estimated against the AC36 logos.

The regatta organisers had a safety and crisis plan in place and this was triggered, with first responders - Coastguard and Police arriving soon after the righting. Both Emirates Team NZ's chase boats arrived - again with more flotation gear, and presumably powered pumps.

As time passed, more responders arrived with pumps and flotation collars - including some designed to wrap around the hull. Two divers from the American Magic crew worked in crew gear and dive tanks.

Eventually the rate of sink declined and stopped, but still with most of the boat underwater, and it was very difficult how the inevitable could be stalled.

While the hull seemed to have some flotation the issue was a cross swell coming from the NE, at almost right angles to the AC75 causing her roll gently allowing water aboard.

The turning point appeared to came when the rolling of the hull was dampened - allowing the pumps to get ahead of the water ingress, and for the flotation supports to have an effect. Slowly the sinking process reversed with the bowsprit being the last piece of the hull to emerge, and eventually the flotation devices attached to it, ceased to carry weight, and preparations for the long tow - stern first - began.

We left before sunset, with the situation well under control by the teams and other responders.

Patriot was hauled from the water at the American Magic base around midnight, and the process of damage assessment began.

Future program

American Magic will default their races in Round Robins 3 & 4, due to get under way on Friday.

With their win from their final race against American Magic, Luna Rossa, can take the first spot in the final if they win both races against INEOS Team UK - which will tie the two teams on four points, and the tie will be broken in favour of Luna Rossa.

As the race schedule stands, there will be no racing on Saturday - the day American Magic was due to sail two races.

However provided all parties agree, including the Defender, Emirates Team NZ, then it is likely that Friday racing will be dropped, and one race held on Saturday and another on Sunday.

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